It doesnt take an expert fan to know that Doctor Who is constantly reinventing itself with new actors, new costumes, new sonics, new sidekicks—a strategy thats kept the show and the fandom alive since 1963. But even as the face of Doctor changes and the sidekicks come and go, there has been one constant companion throughout all the adventures: the TARDIS.
Her interior may change dramatically, and her exterior slightly, but that iconic blue police box is something even non-fans can recognize as the principle iconography of the series. So what does it mean that Doctor Whos new showrunner, Chris Chibnall, waited two entire episodes before revealing Jodie Whittakers first TARDIS ride in the final moments of “The Ghost Monument?” It means that this season of Who has something a little deeper on its mind. Whittaker spoke with Vanity Fair about the deeper changes in the long-running series, all of which might illuminate the shows latest mysterious phrase: The Timeless Child.
The second episode of Season 11 focuses on a foot race in which Whittakers Doctor, her three friends Yasmin (Mandip Gill), Ryan (Tosin Cole), and Graham (Bradley Walsh), and two strangers, Angstrom (Susan Lynch) and Epzo (Shaun Dooley), dash across a treacherous, deserted planet towards a mysterious goal called the Ghost Monument. The Doctor discovers early on that this is another name for her lost ship, the TARDIS. But since the TARDISs absence is such an important piece of the episode, its worth focusing on what else Chibnall has filled the hour with. If this years premiere was all about introductions of Whittaker, her outfit, her sonic, and her friends, then this second installment seems chiefly focused on the shows new mission statement.
With Brexit still looming on the horizon in the U.K., Doctor Who is hammering hard against xenophobia, offering up a myriad of narrative perspectives, and celebrating the notion of a united front. The episode starts with Angstrom and Epzo—who are from two different clans—locked in a heated, frankly racist battle for survival and ends with them joining together. The episode wasnt exactly subtle on this front, and American fans may have noticed Whittakers Doctor borrowing a loaded phrase from Hillary Clintons 2016s presidential bid. The six characters in this episode? The Doctor says theyre “stronger together.”
This philosophy is reflected in front of the camera, with the first-ever woman to play the Doctor surrounded by a trio of companions from various backgrounds. (For a long time, it felt as though the Doctors “Companion” had become tantamount to the label “Bond Girl,” with a rotations of fresh-faced young actresses taking on the role.) “It's not the first time there's been three companions, but I think that is different from recent years,” Whittaker said in our interview. “[Chibnall] just loves the idea of this journey through all these different perspectives and energies and ages and backgrounds.”
That shift is reflected behind the camera as well. The shows historically white, male creative team has been refreshed with a record number of people of color and women, who are both writing and directing this season. “Its appalling that it wasnt always this way,” Whittaker said. “But in this season, weve reflected your social circle and society that we live in today, which isnt just white, male oriented, you know? To not have female writers, to not have diverse group of people sharing a room and then share that with the directors who are going to bring their point of view to it. . .me and you, because were women, we dont need it explained.”
All this is a far cry from the Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who, which was shot through with the white male exceptionalism that marks much of his work—including BBCs Sherlock. “How limiting,” Whittaker observed, “only telling the story from a certain perspective.” This new “stronger together” attitude has precedent on Who; it hearkens back to the end of the Russell T. Davies era, when David Tennants Doctor was warned again and again that it was dangerous for him to wander the galaxy alone.
Whittakers Doctor, on the other hand, leans more heavily than ever on the people adventuring by her side. Previous Doctors have been know-it-alls, but this version knows to use the particular knowledge Ryan, Yasmin, and Graham have to offer.
“You lead, but youre scared to,” Episode 2s villainous bits of cloth taunt Whittakers Doctor. Her reply? “Yeah, well, who isnt?” This vulnerability is one of Whittakers favorite aspects of her character. It reminds her of a personal hero from her childhood: Jennifer Connellys brave and bratty Sarah in Jim Hensons Labyrinth. “She was flawed, she was scared, she was panicked,” Whittaker remembers. “She was all the things that I was.” For years, children have been watching scared-yet-brave young women get rescued from their ordinary lives and led on grand adventures through time and space by a brilliant madman with a box. But what if this time, the scared-yet-brave woman is the one doing the leading?
Which brings us back to the other mysterious thing those menacing, swirling sheets whispered to Whittakers Doctor in Episode 2. Before the season started, Chibnall said each episode would be largely standalone, eschewing the shows previous tendency to lean a bit too hard on interconnected mythology. (All the better for newcomers to jump in.) But the second episode did link back to the season premiere, with another mention of the violent Stenza. As Graham helpfully reminds the audience when the Doctor discovers who is responsible for emptying out the planet: “The Stenza. Thats the thing we stopped in Sheffield, right?” The Stenza, as we learn, are a universe-wide menace. “They took our planet—sent us into hiding, cleansed millions of us,” Angstrom explains.
Even more tantalizing than these potentially season-long villains is a brand new Whovian phrase, one that already sounds iconic. “We see deeper though, further back,” the sheets say. “The Timeless Child… we see whats hidden, even from yourself. The outcast, abandoned and unknown…”
Some Whovians are convinced that this is a reference to Susan—the shows first Companion, and the Doctors grandchild. If so, that would be a very deep cut for Chibnall to deploy, and one that seems in contradiction with his assurance that newcomers wouldnt have to do any homework in order to enjoy this season of Doctor Who. The notion of “outcast, abandoned, and unknown” also flies directly in the face of the “stronger together” motto Whittakers Doctor is operating under. Could the Timeless Child be a past mistake that comes back to haunt her? Or some new catastrophe on the horizon? Like other Who mysteries before it—Bad Wolf, anyone?—well just all have to stay tuned to find out.
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Joanna RobinsonJoanna Robinson is a Hollywood writer covering TV and film for VanityFair.com.